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Trans-Siberian Railway: West Meets East

Jeffrey Syken

“In order to unite the rich yields of Siberian nature with the network of Russian railways”
Tsar Alexander III

Known as the “Father of the Trans-Siberian,” Tsar of all the Russias - Alexander III, instructed his son and heir; Tsarevich Nikolai Aleksandrovich (who later became Emperor Nicholas II) to commence the building of the great railroad through Siberia. The first stone of the “Great Siberian Railway” (the original name of the Trans-Siberian Railway) was laid on May 31, 1891 in Vladivostok, Russia’s Far Eastern port on the Pacific. As far back as 1857, the concept of establishing a Siberian railway in order to develop and populate the vast region beyond the Ural Mountains was being discussed. The scheme, initially, was to link Siberia’s many navigable waterways via a rail network, but by the 1870s that scheme evolved into a single track extending from Moscow, in the West, to Vladivostok and Port Arthur, in the East, for the transport of freight, people and troops. The completion of the Canadian-Pacific Railroad, in 1885, would set the precedent for constructing an extensive railroad through difficult terrain.

Nearly the entire length of the TSR - 5,772 miles - was built through thinly-populated areas under harsh conditions, which included many rivers, lakes and districts that were either extremely waterlogged or filled with permafrost. Because most of Siberia’s rivers run north-south and the TSR ran east-west, there would be many water obstacles that required significant bridges, most made of steel to modern railway standards, at the time, but some, for expediency’s sake, of timber. In fact, over 100 miles of the TSR crosses bridges. The greatest difficulty the builders of the TSR experienced was in the Lake Baikal region – the “Switzerland of Siberia,” where it was necessary to construct thirty-nine mountain tunnels and many bridges to traverse the canyons of the over three-hundred rivers that flow into Lake Baikal – the world’s seventh largest (and deepest) lake. Because of the cost and difficulties involved, the Circum-Baikal railway would have to wait (at first, a train-ferry across the forty-mile-wide lake served to transport people and trains across the lake).

The TSR not only extended over one-quarter of the Earth’s surface, helping to end Siberia’s isolation forever and unite the world’s largest empire with a physical link, it was also a key element in the geo-political strategy of the era in which it was built. The Japanese who, like Russia, had territorial ambitions in Manchuria, looked on with trepidation as the TSR extended ever eastward. The Tsar’s placement of 170K troops in Manchuria didn’t help the situation and the end result was a bloody war between the two nations, ending with the siege of Port Arthur and a humiliating defeat for Russia at the naval Battle of Tsushima. In fact, the Japanese victory over a western power would, ultimately, lead to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Paradoxically, it was the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War that laid bare the many deficiencies of the TSR (i.e. use of too light a rail) that would need to be corrected. In the ensuing years, the TSR would prove to be the lifeline by which Imperial Russia, then the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation maintains communication with fully 25% of its population.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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